Review: Cuckoo (Progress Festival / Jaha Koo)

Picture of Jaha Koo in CuckooPowerful Cuckoo is “an emotional sensory experience”

South-Korean artist Jaha Koo brings his intensely personal experience of the IMF bailout in Korea, and the cultural fallout of that traumatic event, to the stage for Progress Theatre Festival in his astoundingly memorable play, Cuckoo.

While I loved this play, I was disappointed that content warnings were not more obvious. On the website it is listed that there are content warnings for the piece and people are invited to “Please call the Box Office if you have any needs or concerns, or speak with Box Office staff on the day of your performance” for more assistance. But simply walking in, if you had not examined the website, this was not made as clear. This mixed-media performance includes videos of people committing suicide, violent riots, a lot of discussion surrounding suicide, and domestic violence. My guest and I left the theatre feeling unsettled because we were not expecting this kind of content.

That being said, this performance is riveting. Jaha Koo takes his audience through an explanation of the IMF bailout of Korea in 1997, and the repercussions of this event. The bankruptcy of the Korean people that followed has caused social unrest for decades. Koo grew up in South Korea in this environment.

I wasn’t very familiar with the IMF bailout before this production, so at times I felt a little lost throughout the play. However, I think this feeling is important. This feeling of being lost within an unfamiliar culture is a tiny fraction of what I imagine displaced people and immigrants sometimes feel. And I think sitting with this feeling during a production that so acutely grapples with diaspora is important.

All of this is pulled together and contextualized by talking Cuckoos – a brand of rice cooker that became a household name in South Korea in the 1990s. The rice cookers are characters, bickering among each other as they also help tell the story of the South Korean people and Koo himself.

The Cuckoos bring a little humour to very serious subjects. The LED lights on the Cuckoo’s and the rice cooker steam are impressively done by Cuckoo hacker Idella Craddock. Koo and the Cuckoos work together in this poignantly beautiful storytelling performance.

They move between descriptions of Robert Rubin (former United States Secretary of the Treasury and instrumental in the IMF bailout) and stories of Koo’s friends who have committed suicide or who have had to leave South Korea because of bankruptcy.

Eventually, at 28 years old, Koo also leaves Korea. The Cuckoos become a symbol for consumerism within a bankrupt country, but also a beacon of home that ties a diasporic population together. The pressure and heat that builds inside a rice cooker are used analogously as the pressure and heat building inside South Korea.

Koo’s astonishing production grimly plays on the dichotomy of South-Korean political and economic reality and the hyperbolized cult of Western happiness culture. This encourages the audience to think about context and culture. The production helps inspire an understanding of the deep grief and cultural shame that is provoked by these political events.

Koo’s personal story is accompanied by music that he composed. This is performance art at its finest. This production is an emotional sensory experience told through mixed-media storytelling (scenography and media operation by Eunkyung Jeong).

Cuckoo is performed in Korean with English subtitles and English with Korean subtitles. Concept, direction, text, music, and video are all credited to Jaha Koo. I, for one, am waiting impatiently for Koo’s next production.


  • Cuckoo is playing until February 9, 2020 at The Franco Boni Theatre (1115 Queen Street West)
  • Shows run Friday February 7 at 9pm, Saturday February 8 at 7pm, and Sunday February 9 at 2pm
  • Single tickets for Progress Theatre Festival are $25. Three show Progress passes are available for $60
  • Tickets are available online, by phone at 416-538-0988, or in person at the The Theatre Centre box office (1115 Queen Street West)
  • Content warning and trigger warning.
  • English subtitles

Photo of Jaha Koo provided by the company